The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is commonly known as the “Hermit Kingdom” due to its introverted and secretive nature. A totalitarian and authoritarian regime based on its ideology of “Juche,” it seeks to develop a sense of self-reliance where North Korea and its leaders are the “masters of their own destiny.”[1] Despite such talk, the implications of North Korea’s self-styled isolation reverberate on a global scale as one of the major focal points of Sino-American relations.

Historically supported by the People’s Republic of China, North Korea offers a clear buffer zone towards American influence in the pan-Pacific area, neighbouring South Korea and Japan. Although the historical relationship between China and North Korea was largely based on a clear geopolitical purpose, the growing global importance and diplomatic clout of China has clouded the clarity of this logic.

As North Korea operates on an increasingly independent agenda, especially in consideration of its nuclear weapons programme, its growth as an independent and realistically capable threat has become a key focal point within the balance of power in Asia. Considering Sino-American affairs, one of the most obvious consequences of such a change has been that of the changing defence policy of Japan. Having close relations with the US since the end of the Second World War, the Abe Administration’s scrapping of limitations, such as the 1 per cent GDP expenditure cap and the prohibition of Japanese Armed Forces serving abroad, mark a clear turn away from Japan’s largely pacifistic defence policy. Most recently as of February 2017, Japan and the US issued a clear statement reaffirming their policy towards North Korea, stating that the  “U.S.-Japan Alliance is fully capable of ensuring the security of Japan.” Although Japan is revamping its defence policy, it is not so much towards advancing its own agenda, but strengthening its relations to the US in countering emerging threats such as North Korea. As Japan’s arms industry has largely been reliant on the US and its defence industry is inexperienced in operating outside of its domestic markets, such obstacles help demonstrate Japan’s continued reliance on the US.

Due to this modern development, North Korea is losing its relevance within its traditional role as a physical buffer zone as China, on the other hand, can engage directly with other nations as a recognized regional power player. Although Sino-American affairs has grown and evolved into a complicated web of partnership and competition that is necessitated by the global nature of the two nation’s foreign relations, the historical rivalry between the US and China retains a continued relevance within Sino-American relations, forming the quintessential and primal basis upon which such relations are developed. Consequently, North Korea’s role has evolved into a quasi-independent proxy that provides additional pressure, whether diplomatic or physical, on the US and its allies in the region.

Although North Korea forms a prominent part of China’s foreign policy, it cannot be solely responsible for North Korea’s erratic behaviour, since what China requires is a maintenance of the status quo rather than a hostile buffer zone. Although China may be amicable towards North Korea and its associated pressure on US allies as a diplomatic proxy of sorts, the growing tension and often illogical hyperactivity of North Korea’s nuclear programme and belligerent behavior is beyond the comfort level of any nation within the region. Warning in April 2017 that the “game of chicken between Washington and Pyongyang has come to a breaking point,” China clearly recognizes American capabilities, and obviously shows concern towards an escalation of tensions in the region.

Consequently, any solution towards preventing the development of further belligerence falls on a basic premise of joint Sino-American cooperation. As the largest trading partner and economic lifeline for North Korea, China invariably falls as the crucial piece in controlling North Korea’s actions. However, China’s tolerance falls on a threshold. As seen in China’s condemnation of North Korea’s nuclear programme, it falls short of real military action and physical belligerence, but customarily tolerates belligerent threats, a key staple of North Korean political rhetoric.

As China’s strategic interests see North Korea as a priceless proxy state and a defining axis along a clear Sino-American fault line, China will most likely continue to support the North Korean regime, as long as its actions fall in line within its threshold of tolerance. Consequently, in avoiding violent conflict, understanding and influencing this Chinese threshold is key. Sino-American cooperation is ultimately the central tool in harnessing this understanding, and a sense of compromise can be developed in pacifying the situation without breaking the competitive basis of Sino-American relations. This can develop a status-quo that defines an important, albeit narrow, middle ground through which both nations may work to establish future common ground.

[1] Juche Idea: Answers to Hundred Questions. Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publ. House, 2012. Print.

By Timothy Law

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.